Middle East success drives global PR firm's growth

Hill and Knowlton chief executive says revenue rises 10 per cent and highlights opportunities for companies to work for region's governments.

The US public relations company Hill and Knowlton says its revenue grew by 10 per cent in the Middle East last year, highlighting the region as one of a handful of bright spots in an otherwise dark period for the PR industry. Much of that growth occurred in Abu Dhabi and Qatar, where oil and gas-fuelled economies remained engines of expansion for marketing and communications despite a tough global economy, said Paul Taaffe, the chairman and chief executive of Hill and Knowlton.

"There were very few international firms that grew 10 per cent, which is basically what these guys did" in the Middle East, he said. "Globally, we had a small dip on the prior year, which was our record year. The decline was mainly out of western Europe, but this region here was one of our strongest parts of the world." Other strong markets last year for the company, which is owned by the WPP Group, included India, Russia, Canada, Norway and Thailand, Mr Taaffe said. But the Middle East has special significance for the company, which was the first of the major international PR operators to open an office here when it entered the market 25 years ago.

At the time, the move might have been premature, but the early entry helped the company capitalise on prodigious growth in the region in the past decade, Mr Taaffe said. "The founder of the agency believed very strongly that this part of the world was under-represented when it came to public relations counsel, particularly when it was dealing internationally," he said. The Middle East no longer suffers from an underdeveloped PR sector but still faces communications challenges, Mr Taaffe said.

"Even today, when I talk to Arab companies, they really feel it's a struggle to be able to communicate, particularly to the West," he said. "They really feel that there are different rules to play by when it comes to communication." This struggle has been on display in the international media in recent months, as Dubai faced a rash of negative press in the wake of Dubai World's call in November for a debt standstill. Mr Taaffe said the experience should be used as a communications lesson for Dubai's future, which he believed was bright.

"If you aren't communicating, then basically other people write the story for you, about you," he said. "And I think that's what happened in Dubai. Other people drove the story forward. There was a little bit of jealousy in certain quarters, a little bit of Schadenfreude, and Dubai failed to actually step into that vacuum quickly enough." Mr Taaffe expects governments to be a major driver of growth for the PR industry, in the Middle East and globally. His firm has a wide array of government-related clients in the region, including, in the UAE, the Federal National Council and the Federal Government's Communications Office. Much of the company's governmental work in the region, such as recent projects in Afghanistan and Bahrain, involves training personnel in government agencies to conduct their own communications.

"Government as a client is a growth area for us around the world, and in the Middle East," he said. "It's because firms have done this professionally for many years, and governments have tended not to. The communications problems that governments are facing are getting incredibly complex, and when it reaches a certain level of complexity, they tend to outsource it to specialist firms." With high unemployment and the rising costs of health care in many of the world's largest economies, the communications needs of governments are likely to increase as their problems grow in complexity.

The key for governments, as for companies, is to tell the truth and tell it quickly, Mr Taaffe said. "Our job is to represent the truth, even when it's bad, because you can always function if things are true," he said. "People believe you. They will give you the benefit of the doubt. They will give you an opportunity to do something about it. " @Email:khagey@thenational.ae